Friday, February 27, 2015

Changes (a book review post)

For those of you unfamiliar with The Dresden Files, you do not want to start with this book, book 12 in the series. While each book has an intact story that doesn't exactly require the previous books to understand, there is so much back story built up that, even though Butcher does a fairly decent job of quickly filling in details about past events/people, a lot of the context will be lost. Besides, it's a good series and, if you want to read them, you should just start at book one, Storm Front.

If you've been around for a while, you'll know that book 11, Turn Coat, was the first of the Dresden books that I haven't been in love with (or extreme like). And, wow, it was enough to allow me to go a whole year before picking up Changes. I thought about it several times over the past year but, every time I did, I decided to go with some other book. I suppose a streak of reading books I didn't enjoy much prompted me to go ahead with book 12.

The first thing I will note is that the editing is much better in this one. Although there are more commas than are strictly needed, there are none just stuck into the middles of clauses. At least not so many that I noticed them like in the last book.

The idea behind this book is right in the title. Butcher has decided to change Dresden's life, really shake it up. The one thing I have really liked about the Dresden books is that Dresden is not a static character. This is not one of those series where everything goes back to the status quo at the end of each book, which is why you can't pick the books up at random and read them. If you don't read them in order, you can't follow the overall story arc and the growth of the character. The truth is that change is a normal thing for Harry Dresden. Well, except for the fact that he can't ever seem to get ahead. But there are far-reaching consequences in these books that you don't always see in series fiction like this where each book has a happy ending and everything is fine again. Dresden may get the technical happy ending, but nothing is ever fine.

In this one, though, Butcher goes after Dresden hard.

In fact, it's so hard that it's like someone walking up to you on the street and just punching you in the face. Which is kind of the problem, because Butcher picks one of the most cliche ways of doing that: "They've taken our daughter." That's sentence one, and, of course, Dresden didn't know anything about having a kid. Nor should he have because it was from a singular sexual encounter. I'm just going to say, really, only teenagers expect people to believe that you can have sex once and get pregnant.

Sure, I know that it's technically possible, and teenagers, which I know from years of working with them, want adults to believe that, really, they only slipped up the one time and, oops!, pregnant. The reality, though, is that that pregnancy is the result of two humping like bunnies for months. So it's really kind of insulting for Butcher to throw the unknown kid at us from the one sexual encounter Dresden had with the mother years before.

But that's (almost) the only complaint I have about the book. Once you get past the whole "I have to go rescue my daughter" thing, it's a well constructed story. Butcher systematically goes through and dismantles Dresden's life and even managed to throw in a couple of things I didn't see coming. That doesn't happen for me very often. [In fact, the big problem I had with book 11 is that I knew who the bad guy was and what was going on by about 1/4 of the way through the book. The rest of it was just going through the motions.] I don't mind Dresden having a daughter. I don't even mind that he didn't know he had a daughter. I mind that it's the result of this one time thing that happened. Beyond that, this book is a great ride.

Oh, I did say "almost" the only complaint. The other thing is the cliffhanger that Butcher threw in on, literally, the last page. I won't say what happened, but I find just tossing that in at the end to be about as cliche as the beginning. So, yeah, take out the first page and the last page and this is an awesome book. Unfortunately, the reliance on those two gimmicks takes the book down a peg for me. It's still a great series, though, and I would highly recommend it to any fan of fantasy, especially modern fantasy.

Monday, February 23, 2015

No, I Don't Have a Phone (and, no, you can't use it)

The other day, I did a thing I don't do very often. It's a thing I want to do... or want to want to do, maybe... but it's never as good as it seems in my head. I took my notebook with me to the cafe and figured I'd get an Aztec and sit and write for a while. The family was out of town and what better indulgence could there be with no demands on my time, right?

And, see, that's the part where it always sounds better than it turns out, because, almost as soon as I found a place to sit outside, a parent from my kids' school came by and started talking to me. Is it just me, when I am sitting bent over my notebook with my pen going, who thinks that should be a signal not to be disturbed? But that wasn't even the real problem. The real problem is that I didn't really know who the woman was other than that I had seen her on the campus. I don't even know who her kid is. But, then, because I have worked with, basically, the entire middle school in regards to creative writing and because everyone knows me as someone who has published books, lots of people know who I am whom I don't know at all.

But she thought I should know her and talked to me as if I knew who her kid is and what it is she was talking about. And I sat politely through it wondering how I could get back to what I was doing without being rude. The answer there is that you can't.

Eventually, she left. And so did I, because I didn't want to run into anyone else who wanted to talk at me. So I went across the street to the hotel that has the creek running behind it and sat on one of the benches there with goal of getting back to work. There's also a park right there, a park where homeless people tend to hang out.

Not long after I got back to work, one of said homeless guys came by. He wanted to use my phone. To order a pizza. He had money. It would only take a moment. He'd give it right back. He did this kind of thing all the time. I'm not sure if, by that, he meant borrowing people's phones or having pizza delivered to the park. Maybe both. The problem, of course, is that I don't have a phone.

Okay, the real problem was that the guy didn't believe me when I told him that I don't have a phone. And, hey, I get it; everyone has a phone. Except me. And, well, maybe everyone he asks to borrow a phone, because maybe that was why he was so persistent. Maybe everyone tells him they don't have a phone in order to get him to leave. Posers.

So we argued over the fact that I don't have a phone with him trying to convince me of why I should let him use it. The non-existent phone. Until, finally, he left. Sort of. Because he almost immediately came back. I mean, he went around the curve in the path, I looked back down at my notebook and tried to figure out what word I was supposed to be writing, and there he was again. "Are you sure you don't have a phone? I just want to order a pizza." And we went through the whole thing again.

Then, he left.

Except, 10 or 15 minutes later, he came back. Now, the thing to know here is that when he came back, he acted as if I was some completely new person. It was like we had never even spoken before, and we had to have the whole conversation over again. And I swear I heard him mumble something like, "The other guy didn't have a phone, either," when he was leaving.

And I left, too, because, man... I suppose that's why I never go to the cafe or anything like that to do any writing.

I did feel bad for the guy, and I hope he got his pizza. But, really, I don't own a phone.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A Birthday Abduction (part 2)

I left you with the following clue at the end of part one of the birthday abduction:
Lee was the only one to figure out the clue, and he did it with ingenuity, so I think he deserves the credit. Clue #4 lead us to Cowgirl Creamery. I had never heard of Cowgirl Creamery before, so I couldn't really guess it and didn't have any way to figure it out (as Lee did). I came up with "cowgirl cheese," which just made my wife laugh. She kept saying, "You don't know how close you are," and she was right.

At the creamery, we got a demonstration of how cheese is made (which was pretty darn cool) and got to taste a bunch of cheese. There were a couple of cheeses that came in cups and were similar to sour cream, but I didn't like those; I don't like sour cream, either. The others were good, but one in particular stood out: Red Hawk. It's very similar to a brie, and it was awesome! We bought a hunk (which I later used to make some awesome grilled cheese sandwiches (possibly the best cheese I've ever had)). We also had lunch there.
That cheesy looking thing on my wife's plate is called a toastie. It's like a piece of bread with grilled cheese and onions on both sides. It was teh awesome!
I got the mac 'n' cheese, one of their signature dishes. It's made with two different of their cheeses and was SO good. But it was also too much for me to finish. I brought it home and was going to share the rest with my kids but, while I was out, they stole it and ATE IT! Later, when I was going to get it, it was gone! It was sad-making, but at least they enjoyed it.

Cowgirl Creamery is definitely on my list of places to visit again.

After lunch, I was given my final clue card:
This one should have been much easier for me than it was but, I guess, I was out of context. I did come up with "honey" and "wine," though. Of course, that's why I should have gotten it. Do any of you have it?

The answer is "honey wine" or mead, and I should have known that, because I had been talking for months about wanting to try some. The whole adventure actually started with the mead, because my wife wanted to take me to a meadery. Heidrun Meadery to be precise.
We got a tour of the facility and did a tasting.
Normally, we get to see the bees, too, but, well, there was the rain and stuff, and, even if we had wanted to trudge through the mud to get to the bees, they were all inside sitting by their little hive fires or whatever it is they do on a rainy day. Certainly not out flying around, though.

I bought a jar of macadamia nut honey and a bottle of Alfalfa and Clover Blossom mead. It was tasty. That's another place I want to go back to, because I still need to see the bees.

That was the end of the adventure, but it's not the end of the story, because I had a surprise of my own in store for my wife and my family!

This year, I decided to give everyone else a present on my birthday, so I got Lego all around. The kids each got something small, but I got a big Lego for my wife. Well, it's kind of for the family, but it's mostly for my wife, because for a while now she has been talking about how cool it would be to make a little Lego town. She didn't know they actually have such a thing, so I got for her the first building for her little Lego community:
She was so excited and surprised by the Lego, she conceded that I may have equaled her on the birthday surprise thing. Once we've made a place to display it and get it put together, expect another post.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Just Exactly How Life Looks (a book review post)

It can sometimes be difficult to review a collection of short stories. Especially when the stories are not linked together with a strong central them, the temptation can be to review each story individually, and that's not really helpful in answering the question of "should I buy this collection?" I will admit, though, that that is the temptation I'm having here. So I'm going to approach it another way entirely...

"The Death of the Second-hand Cowboy"

This is a great story. It's almost worth the cost of the whole collection. Not quite but almost. It deals with the rather metaphysical question of what an author (or a creator) owes to his characters (or his creation). Possibly, it's because of being an author but the idea of, basically, turning around and being confronted by one of my characters demanding to know what the heck I'm doing with him is... Well, I don't know if I would want that.

I mean, what if it was the cop from Shadow Spinner? How could I even answer the "Why?" that I'm sure would be his question. Because the story demanded it? Would that work for you if it was you asking "Why?"

Or, even worse, what if it was Tom from The House on the Corner? And that may seem an odd one for those of you have read House, but you don't know what's coming for him, and I do, and, if I was him, I would want to know why. Why him. And I don't know if those things can be explained.

So this idea of the Second-hand Cowboy showing up in the author's living room and wanting to know why is really intriguing and really frightening. And the most interesting part (at least to me) is that the author never attempts to blame anyone else even though he could very legitimately have done so.

It's a really good story.

The rest of the stories are of variable quality. One thing Pagel periodically suffers from is a lack of focus. A lack of focus can be used to good effect when it's being used purposefully to achieve that effect but, when the lack of focus ends up being just a lack of focus, it means that it's just a blurry word picture without any real discernible meaning. A few of the stories in this collection feel like that to me, like they almost say something, but they just weren't drawn together well enough to really get the message through (and I don't mean message in the sense of a moral, just message as the story itself).

Having said that, there are a few other very nice stories in this collection, "voices" in particular. Not actually knowing what it's like to be blind, I think Pagel did a good job of capturing living through sound. Also, "Panorama." I was unsure of this story until I got to the end, but it's very touching and, I think, really captures the subject matter. "Thinking the Lions" is one I probably like more than I should. It's probably a bit out of focus, but I really like the concept he's working with and, actually, think it could have been longer.

So, as I said, "The Death of the Second-hand Cowboy" is almost worth the cost, but, with 10 other stories, there's probably something else in there that will make it pay off for you. It's definitely worth a look.

And, because it's me, I have to touch on the technicals. This one came out back before Pagel really began taking an interest in editing, and it shows. Mostly, it's in the commas, which are all over the place, but there are various other things, too, along with some formatting issues. The commas, though, are probably not something that will be an issue for most people. Actually, probably the only thing anyone else will notice are the formatting errors as the paragraph indentations do sort of wave at you.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

A Birthday Abduction (part 1)

So...
Last week was my birthday. Which, before people start saying things, is not a big deal. That's why I didn't mention it. Birthdays were never given much attention when I was growing up. I had two whole birthday parties when I was a kid unless you count that my mom brought a cake to my classroom when I was in kindergarten. Presents usually consisted of my mom saying, "What do you want?" or giving me some money and saying, "Get yourself something." So I have never made a big deal out of my birthday as an adult.

But don't worry: My kids get the full birthday treatment.

This year, my wife decided to change all of that. She had warned me earlier in the week to not have any plans for Friday, but I had no idea what that meant. Then, she got the day off of work due to the rain and followed that by responding to my invitation to take her to breakfast with, "Yeah, we're not doing that."

Instead, I got this:
Which was to direct me to my favorite cafe, then I got this:
That took me a while to figure out, and I'm not going to tell you what it means. Because that's the kind of guy I am. But here are some pictures of the drive:
Yes, it was raining more than a little.
Next, there was this:
Which was actually this:
They have an earthquake trail there based around the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Point Reyes lies directly on the San Andreas fault. Here are some pictures:
The blue stakes mark the fault line.
This is the picture of a fence. It was once one continuous fence. The post at the bottom right (in close-up) used to be joined to the other section you see in the distance. The 1906 separated the pieces of fencing by about 16'. Yes, I said feet.

Yes, it was raining the whole time we were there, and the wind was something fierce. But, of course, she had planned all of this before we knew about the incoming storm. She did offer me the option of just staying home and sleeping (because my birthday present from my cat had been a three-hour war in the middle of the night because he thought I should be awake and having a party with him), but I turned it down. It was fun! And I earned my intrepid explorer badge! I was glad, though, that this was the only outside portion of the jaunt she had planned, because we were pretty soaked, despite jackets and umbrellas that kept blowing inside out, by the time we were finished there.

Next time, you can find out the rest of the day. Here, I'll leave you with my next clue:
Leave your guesses at the door.

Monday, February 9, 2015

American Sniper (a movie review post)

One thing I've learned in the past few weeks is that you shouldn't say anything bad about American Sniper. Well, unless you want to be vilified, that is. The thing is, none of the negative comments I've heard about Sniper are actually incorrect. Setting that aside for the moment, though, Sniper is a fine film. Predictable. Contrived. It's a solid piece of movie making, as you would expect from Clint Eastwood. And Bradley Cooper is good. Not great. Not best actor worthy, but he is good.

The film, as a film, is also not "best" worthy. It doesn't stand out as a movie at all. The thing that sets it apart is that it is a "true" story, so, because of its nomination, it's impossible to look at Sniper as just a movie other than to say that if it was fiction (which it is), no one would care about this movie. It is not powerful in any way other than the tragedy of the life it was based on.

And, by all accounts, that life was a tragedy. Chris Kyle was not a "good" guy. He was an asshole who liked to get into fights, who looked for any excuse to get into a fight, you know, to prove how much of a man he was or whatever. In that, he was the essence of the modern "cowboy" they played him off to be at the beginning of the movie. He was a braggart who let everyone know just how much of a "legend" he was and who exaggerated about how many men he'd killed, even making up stories about men he didn't kill just to make himself look... I don't know, even more "manly" or badass.

Of course, I didn't know Kyle, but those are the kinds of things he said, and those are the kinds of things people who knew him said about him. At least, that's the kind of stuff that was said about him before he was murdered. I don't know if he was turning his life around those last couple of years or not. What I do know is that he proclaimed that all proceeds from his book were being donated to veterans' groups, something which was completely not true. In reality, only about 2% of what was made was donated.

So, in respect to all of that, the movie does seem like a piece of propaganda to me, but a piece of propaganda about Chris Kyle more than anything else. See, in the movie he is this humble guy who doesn't like the reputation he's earned and doesn't like to talk about how many people he's killed. In fact, they play it off as if he doesn't even really know. He's just trying to protect people and the numbers don't matter. Because Kyle is being held up as "true American hero," it's like they needed to re-write his life to make him out to be a nice guy. A nice guy who does his job like any good American would; it's just that his job happens to be killing people. Something he's very humble about.

In the movie, that is. I need to stress that. Because his personality is completely the opposite in the movie to what he was supposed to be like.

Not mention all of the other things they made up for the movie. For instance, Kyle had no sniper nemesis. The whole showdown at the end of the movie was completely made up. He was much younger in life when he joined the military than he was in the movie. Why make him older? That doesn't make any sense at all. Basically, the only things they got right were the very broad strokes. There was a guy named Chris Kyle from Texas who was a SEAL and a sniper who spent time in Iraq. And he had a wife named Taya.

What all of this comes down to for me is one question: What makes a someone a hero? Why are we, as a culture, holding Kyle up as this great hero? I mean, he has his own day, now, in Texas. Is it because he killed a bunch of people? Is that what makes someone a hero? Is it because he risked his life for his country? Because lots of people do that, and we don't consider them heroes. Is it because, at the end of it all, he was murdered while trying to help someone?

I think, certainly, that the movie version of Kyle has been molded into someone whom we would call a hero. Just a humble guy doing his best to serve God, serve his country, and, mostly, sacrificing his family to do it... because family comes third after God and country. But, once home, he is going about repairing the damage he did by being away. He's become a good husband and a good dad and he's still out trying to help people. It makes the tragedy of his death that much worse.

But that's movie Kyle. Of course, that's the Kyle that most of us are going to remember. Now, it is, at any rate. I'm not so sure real life Kyle would meet those heroic standards. Maybe that's not important? Maybe the current cultural need for a "real hero" outweighs the reality of the person. I don't really know.

None of which answers the question about whether you should see this movie. I suppose it depends upon whether you want to see a very black and white (as in there are no foreigners depicted in the movie who are good; they are all savages and none of them can be trusted) representation of a fantastical hero figure who was given a gift by God to shoot people. There are no questions in this movie: We are good. Chris Kyle is good. They are bad, Period.

As a side note, I found it very interesting that The Punisher (from Marvel Comics) was so pervasive in the movie. It is certainly symbolic of the mindset (whether that was based on a fact or not). I would point out that The Punisher is only considered a hero in that he is an anti-hero. He does bad things, evil things sometimes, to bad people because no one else will. He is the only one who decides who deserves those things to happen to them. Is that the "hero" we want America to be equated with? I hope not. If we're going to aspire to a national hero, I'd much prefer Captain America. Maybe we would have done a better job over in Iraq if Cap had been our goal.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Peer Editing (or Teaching Kids To Fail) (an IWSG post)

Back around the beginning of December, my younger son had his first fiction writing assignment in his freshman English class. As I've mentioned before, my son is an excellent writer. He is so far beyond where I was at his age, there's no way to make a good comparison. The story he wrote is very good, and I will be making it available at some point. It was so good, in fact, that his teacher emailed me to let me know how good it is, so good that she caused a disruption during class while reading it. Because she was laughing her ass off.
[heh heh I said "ass."]

All of that is well and good. The issue came after they turned in the first draft. After the first draft came the peer editing process. I have never been fond of peer editing; my oldest had to do a lot of this when he was in high school, but he was the one that everyone wanted to edit their papers. [Do you see a trend here?] He would mention it every now and then, but it was never an issue for him. However, what happened with my younger son is an excellent example of why peer editing should never be used. Not in school and, well, not anywhere.

So my son wrote his story and turned it in, then it was passed through the hands of several of his classmates for editing. It came back with tons of corrections. I mean  the paper was all marked up. And this caused a problem.

See, my son was pretty sure he didn't have any errors, even though he hadn't given it to me to proof before he turned it in. His marked up paper filled him with doubt. It made him question what he knew.

He brought it home and gave it to me and told me, "I didn't think I had any mistakes but, now, I don't know."  He asked me some specific questions about punctuation, because more than one person had made the same comma "correction." One person accused him of using too many "run on" and "long" sentences, because, the person said, sentences should be short. I agreed to look the story over for him so that he would know which "corrections" to respond to.

As it turned out, the number of corrections he needed to respond to was... zero. ZERO. Every correction made to his story was incorrect. I told him to ignore them all and turn the final draft in exactly as it had been. His grade was 50/50 turning in the paper as it had been before his peers got a hold of it. His teacher wrote "flawless" along with the grade.

There are a few things here that need to be pointed out:
1. My son knew what he was doing. He knew he knew what he was doing. But, still, when his paper came back from his peers, it filled him with doubt about what he knew he knew. That's not a good thing. If my son, who is very competent, doubted himself, how do you think other students who are not very competent responded?
2. In relation to point 1, this kind of "editing" can cause students to unlearn things that are correct. It can convince them that they were incorrect about things which were actually correct and cause them to change to some incorrect method, like putting all the commas after the conjunction in a sentence rather than before it (a very common "correction" on my son's story).
3. Every time a student makes an incorrect "correction" on someone else's paper, it reinforces that incorrect behavior. Each time that student moves the comma to the wrong place, it ingrains that process just a little deeper. Kind of like muscle memory. It's much more difficult to re-learn something like that once you've been doing it a lot rather than just learning it correctly the first time. Don't give students a chance to reinforce bad grammar/punctuation habits; they make enough of those on their own.

The whole peer editing process being used in schools is a bad joke, and teachers should quit telling it.

I want to point out that the critique partner process is the same thing as peer editing. Almost always, the assertion, "I have great critique partners," means, "My peer editors add mistakes to my manuscript!" What makes me say this? Well, the fact that so many indie authors who use CPs to help them edit their books send their works out full of grammar and punctuation lice. Yeah, lice, because that's what it's like. One person's mistakes jumping over to some other person's manuscript because neither person is competent with grammar.

Sorry, it's just the truth.

More heads do NOT result in a better product. They result in a gradual degradation of your first product as you incorporate everyone else's mistakes into your manuscript. Basically, a grammar lice outbreak.

Look. I get it. Editing is tough. Good editing is even more tough, and it's difficult to find at a reasonable price. Beyond that, most of the editors out there aren't any better than having a CP. Too many of them are "editing" because they read a lot. Seriously. I have seen so many people (book bloggers, especially) who, because they find "mistakes" in the indie books they are reading, think that makes them qualified to be an editor. It does not.

So what do you do, then?

There's not really a good answer to that other than to find ONE person who is better at copy-editing than you and trust that one person with your manuscript. At least, that way, you only have the potential for one person's errors in your final product. Or, maybe, you'll find someone really good, and it will end up "flawless" like my son's short story. (If you want, I'll ask him if he's taking anyone, right now.)

Actually, ideally, you would set to work learning grammar and punctuation yourself and develop your own style with it that fits your writing. That's what's most important, especially if you're an indie author. Even if not all of the grammar and punctuation isn't technically correct, if the style fits you're writing, it doesn't matter.

can you imagine what it would be like if e e cummings had followed the rules?
his style was what defined him
however, i'm sure he knew the rules even though he didn't follow them
why do i know that?
because he broke the rule consistently in the same way

All of that to say:
Stop submitting your work to your "peers." By the definition of peers, these are people who are no more qualified than you to do the job that you are asking of them. Learn the rules for yourself, then you can know how and when to break them.